Monday, April 8, 2013

Bible, Gender, Sexuality: A Review of James Brownson

James V. Brownson (Eerdmans, 2013).
Sexuality and the Bible is a topic confronting the church in ways like never before. Books are being written, debates are taking place, denominations are splitting and high profile figures are taking stands on what they believe the Bible has to say. At times it is difficult to think clearly about the topic because many on both sides are shouting at one another rather than talking together.

With the atmosphere the way it is one would wonder why we need another voice, much less a book, to weigh in on the topic. But it is because of this toxic atmosphere that James V. Brownson has written this book. He has read and listened to what both sides have to say and concluded that both are lacking in the answers they provide. The book is also personal. Brownson talks early on about his own struggle with the topic when he son told him and his wife that he is gay. The impact of that day is what sent Brownson back to look once again at what the Bible might have to say about homosexuality. 

The book is broken into four parts and there is much that could be said. It will be very difficult for me to cover everything he says, but I will attempt to give a cursory summary of what Brownson lays out in each section.

In part one he examines the arguments of what he refers to as “traditionalists” and “revisionists.” After looking at the traditionalist arguments against same-sex relationships he concludes that the foundational element of their objections is “gender complementarity,” the idea that anatomical and biological differences between males and females are overcome when the two genders come together and constitute a binary, original human. This conclusion is predicated on an understanding of the “one flesh statement” in Gen 2:24. But Brownson argues that the “one flesh” statement in Genesis 2:24 is not referring to anatomy and biology, but a kinship bond. By joining together they create a new kinship bond that represents the image of God in creation (pp. 32-34). If Brownson is correct, than Gen 2:24 cannot be viewed as teaching “gender complementarity” as normative.

On the revisionist side, Brownson notes that many point out that what the Bible says about same-sex attraction cannot be applied to the contemporary world. Since the Bible has nothing to say about long term committed same-sex relationships, it should not be applied today (p.41). The Bible’s call for justice and love is held up by the revisionists as a template for how same-sex couples should be treated today. But, Brownson questions, if the Bible has nothing to say to same-sex couples how then do we build a distinctively Christian approach to such unions (P. 45)? Instead, Brownson argues, we need a wider canonical examination of biblical discussions on sexuality to determine what relevance they may have for modern same-sex relationships.

In part two he looks at how Patriarchy, “one flesh,” procreation and celibacy are in the New Testament.  

Brownson notes that there is a tension in the New Testament between patriarchy and egalitarianism that is resolved in the eschatological vision of the future. The invitation of the future invites people to live now as if they are in the future. Brownson suggests that since the hierarchy of the genders is undermined by the eschaton, so too assumptions about same-sex relationships based on gender complementarity can/should also not be maintained (p.84).

 In looking at how the New Testament writers understand the “One Flesh” phrase in Genesis, he argues that even in the New Testament Jesus, Paul and others are not referring to gender complementarity, but to kinship bonds. He concedes that in the Bible the “one flesh” bond only takes place between a man and a woman, but he also argues that there is nothing inherent in the Bible that would prohibit that same type of kinship bond being formed between gays and lesbians (pp. 104-108). Just because this is what is normal to the Bible doesn't mean that it is normative in a different cultural setting (p. 109).

On the topic of procreation, a common argument used against same-sex relationships, Brownson argues that although procreation always assumes marriage, marriage doesn't necessarily assume procreation. He demonstrates that there are a number of instances in the Bible where lack of children doesn't dissolve marriage. Therefore, the inability to procreate doesn't undermine the marriage kinship bond (p.126) and should not undermine same-sex couples to marry.

Finally, he examines notions of celibacy in the Bible since it is sometimes argued by some traditionalists that gay and lesbian Christians should remain celibate. But Brownson argues that celibacy is held up as either a gift that few are given or as something that was part of a temporary abstention from sex.  Thus he wonders if it is ethical to force gays and lesbians to remain celibate if they do not have this gift from God (p. 146).

In part three Brownson focuses on what Paul has to say in Rom 1:24-27, a passage often held up by traditionalists. He suggests that Paul is not talking about any kind of sexuality, but the kind in which an unhealthy preoccupation with lust and desire manifests itself in destructive ways. The problem is not the type of sex, but what drives it (167-169). He argues that the Bible is categorically against this type of lust, but does not necessarily condemn same-sex couples any more than heterosexual ones. He further argues that when Paul speaks of “nature” he is not referring to biology or anatomy, but “what comes natural.” Paul’s understanding of same-sex relationships was that they were driven by an insatiable drive for such actions. Since Paul and the ancients had no understanding of sexual orientation, Brownson suggests that 1:24-27 cannot be applied to those couples that are committed to one another in a same-sex relationship. The problem is uncontrollable lust, not necessarily the mode of sex. 
Brownson concludes the book by offering a review of his arguments and looking, briefly, at some of the other passages in the Bible that are often used by traditionalists. He concludes that many of these passages have not been properly understood and that while they are condemning certain behaviors, none of them reflect the type of committed, long-term same-sex relationships that we are witnessing today. In most cases, he argues, the problem is with how one individual is using and abusing another for their own sexual gratification. In the bible, notions of mutual respect and love are not understood to be a part of these relationships. Sexuality in the Bible is hedged by warnings against self-gratification, excess, and shaming and/or degrading others. This vision of redeemed sexuality, Brownson notes, can be applied to committed same-sex relationships as well.

As I mentioned above, there is a lot to this book and it is impossible to address everything that Brownson has said. Overall I think he is to be commended for trying to bring an approach that looks at the Bible with fresh eyes. Rather than apply the Bible from the traditionalist position, he has tried to ask how this ancient document needs to be interpreted in a modern setting that is not envisioned by the authors of the Bible. Rather than suggest that the Bible has little to say to modern, committed, same-sex couples he attempts to apply the sexual ethics of the Bible to them in the same way he would a heterosexual couple.

If there is one thing that sticks out to me about this book it is the emphasis that the “one-flesh” bond is not about gender complementarity, but kinship bonds. Based on his reading of the Hebrew Bible I think he is correct in the context of Genesis. There are times, however, when I am not sure that it works in the New Testament since those authors often read those text in very different ways. The use of Gen 2: 24 in 1 Cor 6:16 in the prohibition against prostitution, for instance, seem to envision more than a kinship bond. And the quotation of Gen 2:24 by Jesus does seem to assume male and female.

But this gets to the very point of Brownson’s book.  The extant evidence from the ancient world doesn't indicate they envisioned same-sex relationships as deriving from orientation. Unlike today, the notion of stable relationships formed in love and mutual respect was not part of their worldview.  Brownson acknowledges that and attempts to tease out a distinctively Christian approach to such unions.

I suspect there will be much debate surrounding this book. Certainly not everyone is going to agree with him (from both camps). But I also think it will help some to rethink how the Bible does and does not speak to same sex relationships. Hopefully it will help to change the atmosphere of the debate. 

Overall, I think he makes some good points and while there are areas that I think he could have done a better job, I think he helps move the conversation in the right direction. No matter which side of the debate one takes, Brownson helps bring some sanity to the way we think and talk about it. 

Many thanks to the kind people at Eerdmans for sending me a copy to review here. 


  1. Dr. Byron, what did you think of his exegesis and commentary on Romans 1:24-27? I was curious if you thought he was on a valid track there.

    I wonder about the logic of saying that because the Biblical writers had no concept of sexual orientation that they cannot speak concerning these matters. Who decides that the discovery of "orientation" affects the legitimacy or relevance of what they said? I mean, maybe it does, but what is the argument for it doing so? (Feel free to tell me to read the book if you want, haha)

    1. Well Quincy, you should read the book! :)

      I must admit that while I was impressed with much of the book, I found his argument in Romans 1 lacking at times. I think his treatment of nature needs more, but in fairness to him that would take more than just a chapter. I do think that he is correct that Paul is talking about uncontrolled lust. But I am not sure that we can argue that Paul didn't think same-sex eroticism was wrong. I didn't mention it above, but I think some interaction with Jewish thought on the subject at the time might have been helpful.

  2. Dr. Byron, Is it not the case that Paul would have known about the committed same-sex relationships of the Greeks and Romans? He seems to be well versed in Greco-Roman philosophy and lifestyle in many other areas, so it seems like he would have been acutely aware of their stance on homosexuality. Or does Brownson not consider Paul's awareness of such relationships to be of importance?

    And I suppose I ought to read the book, but as a student of classics I have a hard time buying the argument that the ancients had no knowledge of sexual-orientation. My mind jumps first to Sappho, who was at least one individual recognized by the ancients as sexually oriented toward her own sex. And then I think of Plato's Symposium, wherein one gets a similar impression about the ancient's knowledge of same-sex orientation.

    1. John,

      I am not sure that we can see whether or not Paul knew of committed same sex relationships in the Greco-Roman world. Paul and the rest of the Bible is silent on the matter. And no, Brownson does not take these into account. As to sexual orientation, the category is a modern one. This means that while the ancient most certainly included people we had same-sex orientation,it was not recognized as such. It was understood as a moral choice.And it was acceptable if the person who was the passive partner was of a lower class (ie. a slave or some other similar person). It was shameful for an upper class male to be the passive partner in the relationship. This is something that Brownson demonstrates several times (p. 107). And he points out, correctly I think, that this is also the case in the OT and NT. In the case of Rom 1:24, it is a matter of insatiable lust.

      As to Plato's Symposium, the training of the boy is still within the socially accepted norms. I don't know that we can use it to talk about orientation.

      I certainly don't think Brownson is the last word on the topic. But I think he helps to reframe the question.

    2. Scroggs has shown that pederasty frequently occurred in ancient homosexual practices. Petersen has shown that ancient homosexuality was polyvalent, riddled with relational dysfunction. Many have tried to show that Paul, when he took issue with homosexuality, had committed same-sex relationships in mind. While this could have been the case, it seems more logical to assume that the overwhelming relational dysfunction that surrounded these practices colored Paul's understanding of homosexuality. Thus, it may have been too difficult for Paul to envision a version of same-sex relations that was not riddled with relational dysfunction. In your expert opinion, do you think that this could be a possible way forward?

  3.'s proof otherwise, of a knowledge of inborn sexual orientation. Symposium 191e-192b:
    "Each of us, then, is but a tally1 of a man, since every one shows like a flat-fish the traces of having been sliced in two; and each is ever searching for the tally that will fit him. All the men who are sections of that composite sex that at first was called man-woman are woman-courters; our adulterers are mostly descended from that sex, whence likewise are derived our man-courting women and adulteresses. All the women who are sections of the woman have no great fancy for men: they are inclined rather to women, and of this stock are the Lesbians. Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them and to be clasped in men's embraces; these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature. Some say they are shameless creatures, but falsely: for their behavior is due not to shamelessness but to daring, manliness, and virility, since they are quick to welcome their like. Sure evidence of this is the fact that on reaching maturity these alone prove in a public career to be men. So when they come to man's estate they are boy-lovers, and have no natural interest in wiving and getting children, but only do these things under stress of custom; they are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days. A man of this sort is at any rate born to be a lover of boys or the willing mate of a man, eagerly greeting his own kind."

    1. John,

      Yes, I am aware of this portion of the Symposium. But this is also part of the myth in which Zeus is said to have split those who practice such acts in half as punishment for rebellion. The people in this section are described as finding their matching half, not, to put it in a modern sense, being born that way. I am not sure that we can use this section of the Symposium to support an argument that people thought in terms of orientation. Certainly people of the same-sex did fall in love in antiquity, I am not denying that nor saying this is necessarily new. But the evidence from antiquity doesn't think in categories such as "homosexual" and "lesbian." Much of what we have described, as in the Symposium, is pederasty, the use of young boys by older men. A practice that was often put aside once the man was married. The goal of pederasty, at least in Plato's idealized mind, was to raise up manly individuals who would protect the state. Even in the section you have quoted this is brought out in the reason that they were attracted to each other.

      Again, I am not suggesting that people of same-sex didn't fall in love in antiquity, but the understanding of orientation is a modern one and one that I don't think Paul would have been aware of.

    2. Right, it is a mythological explanation for an observable fact. The observable fact being explained by the myth is that some men and women seem to be attracted to the same sex by nature. Again, the explanation is silly and mythological, but it points to an observation that Plato must have been aware of--that at least some same-sex relationships were so by nature.

      The Symposium is not an affirmation of pederasty, in fact it is the opposite. In the dialogue the praises of pederasty come from the mouths of Aristophanes (whom Plato clearly disliked) and Eryximachus. Socrates, Plato's mouthpiece, denies that the customary pederasty is beneficial and says instead that sexuality ought not be the purpose of the coming together of two men. Instead, he says the purpose ought to be to philosophize, to point the ἔρος toward wisdom and goodness and beauty, not sexual gratification.

  4. In our zeal as a society of these times, modern (or is it post-modern or millenial?) culture believes that every one needs to be sexually active and oriented. The traditionalist view seems to push little girls to grow up to be good mommies and good wives; little boys are pushed to be men who father children and work a manly job.

    As times have changed, the LGBT segment along with "media" support says every body must have a sexual orientation.

    So if a little girl or little boy grows up with no sense of desire for a relationship with the opposite sex then that must mean they are to be drawn to a same-sex relationship according to today's normal while the church traditionalists would say they need to be married to procreate and grow Christianity.

    I find this book disingenuous. I am struck with the idea that Brownson is trying to force the scriptural texts to make his son holy before God. I am also offended that when Paul didn't understand these things. However, he addressed the relational matters between wives and husbands and he didn't take the time to address to homosexuals how their lives should be lived in Corinth who certainly populated the local church with people of all sorts of sexual orientations in some way.

    And then, I am bothered that there seems to be little regard for the sacredness of marriage as declared in Genesis 1 and other places. Furthering this thought is the idea that the writers of God's Word were ignorant of the gay issue. Paul was far from stupid and he addressed the matters that were at hand involving the Church and not necessarily the outer culture.

    Besides, I still hold to the scriptures being God-breathed and the kingdom trajectory of truth (such as freedom of slaves and women in ministry) did not include homosexual behavior as acceptable.

  5. Why would it be necessary for Paul to be aware of sexual orientation if the Scriptures are God-breathed?
    The prophets must have recorded many things they did not understand entirely and did not apply to their cultures. John probably didn't understand everything in the vision that caused him to write the book of Revelation.
    So why would Paul need to understand every cultural context that his words would apply to? Wouldn't God have inspired him to write what would consistently apply to any and every culture?

    1. Aliva,

      You ask and important question. Let me ask you a question in return that may help us lay the groundwork for a good conversation. If what Paul wrote can be consistently applied to any and every culture, what do we do with his statements about slavery or women wearing head coverings? Since we have decided that slavery is not a good idea, how do we then apply what Paul says in our modern culture?